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Archive for January, 2012

Setting the Stage

As I noted in my About page this blog will examine urban design issues as they relate to redeveloping our cities into more pedestrian and resource-friendly places.  For the past 70 years our built environments have been shaped by the automobile.  This has resulted in sprawling cities of  separated uses connected only by cars with no sense of place.  Sprawling development patterns have resulted in a degraded natural environment, negative health impacts, and left us with a deteriorated sense of community.  (Check out this article about the health impacts of sprawl)  It’s long past time we re-start designing our cities for people rather than cars.

I live and work in the small town of Sebastopol, California (pop. 7,400).  Sebastopol is located in Sonoma County, about 50 miles north of San Francisco.  While the population of Sebastopol is on the small side, the surrounding countryside, referred to locally as ‘West County,’ is home to over 50,000 residents.  Many of these people frequent Sebastopol to shop, go to school, work and play but the city does not provide all necessary services which sends people to larger nearby towns.  This is particularly true for both shopping and work.  This travel between West County and other places, which happens almost exclusively by car, creates a lot of pass-through traffic on the two state highways which bisect Sebastopol from north to south and east to west.  The residential growth of the surrounding countryside was not accommodated for in the street network in town which has resulted in a lot of traffic in the center of town, at the literal crossroad of the state highways.

Sebastopol is located in a picturesque landscape on the edge of rolling hills and is bordered on the east by the Laguna de Santa Rosa (the largest freshwater wetlands complex on the northern California coast) and lies about 15 miles from the Pacific Ocean.  Sebastopol had been the center of gravenstein apple production and includes many facilities in and around town that had been used for the processing and shipping of apples and apple products.  This included a train which ran down the center of Main Street to bring apples in from surrounding areas and ship them out to the world.  The train also provided passenger service to the nearby cities of Petaluma and Santa Rosa.  The tracks have since been removed but the legacy of the train can still be seen in various locations in town.  While there are still some orchards in the surrounding countryside, many of the orchards have recently been converted to vineyards to support the burgeoning Sonoma County wine industry.  Many of the former apple processing facilities are located downtown and have been vacant and underutilized for years.

Downtown Sebastopol works to a limited degree.  It contains a number of stores providing a mix of goods and services for its residents and visitors.  There are two national chain grocery stores, a chain pharmacy, an independent bookstore, housewares store, clothing stores and boutique/gift shops.  There are restaurants, bars and a multi-screen movie theatre.  There is a popular weekly organic farmers market.  I live and have a home office in what would be considered downtown and I can go days without needing to get in a car.  Sounds great?  It is.  Sebastopol has a great starting point and a lot of potential to be a model of smart development.  However Sebastopol faces some real issues that are preventing this from happening.

Many of the urban design issues facing Sebastopol are the same as those facing other cities large and small.  I will use Sebastopol as my case study city as I consider current urban design issues.  Because of the small size of the town I have been able to get more directly involved in the urban design issues facing this community which has given me more insight than if viewed from a distance.

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